The Queen brought some spring cheer to a chilly Sunday morning as she attended a church service in Norfolk over the weekend. Wearing a chic peach coloured suit and accepting bunches of flowers from well-wishers, the monarch was accompanied by Countess Mountbatten of Burma, Penelope Knatchbull.
Lady Mountbatten is not just a member of the royal family, but one of the closest companions of both the Queen and Prince Philip. Known informally as Penny, the Countess is the only daughter of butcher-turned-businessman Reginald Eastwood and she joined the royal family through her relationship with Norton Knatchbull, 3rd Earl of Mountbatten. Penelope was an immediate hit with the royals, but particularly impressed the Queen and Philip when she was first introduced by Norton in 1975; a royal insider remembered her as "one of the most natural young women I have ever met, outgoing but not brash or flirty."
The Countess accompanied the Queen to church on Sunday
Norton's close friendships with the major royals served as the perfect springboard for Penelope to get closer to the family. The Earl had attended prestigious independent school Gordonstoun with Prince Charles as a child, with the Prince of Wales serving as best man at the couple's wedding ceremony in 1979. Between 1981 and 1986, Penelope gave birth to three children, Nicholas, Alexandra and Leonora. However, tragedy struck in 1991, when Leonora contracted liver cancer and died at the age of five, leaving the family understandably devastated.
The Countess and Prince Philip are close friends
Following this shocking tragedy, Countess Mountbatten grew closer to Prince Philip and the Queen. Despite an age difference of more than thirty years, a shared love of the outdoors allowed a friendship to flourish between Penelope and the Prince Consort after Philip taught the Countess to drive carriages in 1994. This shared love of driving still keeps the pair entertained today and it has been suggested that Penny's enthusiasm for the sport has been crucial in keeping Philip's hands on the reins in his old age.
Prince Philip and Penelope are both big fans of carriage driving
While Penelope was seen in public riding alongside Phillip, her friendship with the Queen grew behind closed doors. However, it was the strength demonstrated following her husband's affair in 2010 that particularly impressed Her Majesty and allowed their companionship to become a more public affair. Refusing to let Norton's departure interrupt royal duty, the Countess took over the running of the Broadlands estate. Despite the family connection between Norton and the royal family, a friend close to the family said that "the Queen and Phillip [couldn't] forgive him for what he did to Penny."
Norton Knatchbull and Penelope Eastwood on their wedding day
From this point onwards, the Countess has been a fixture at every royal event of consequence; amongst palace staff, she is nicknamed 'and also' as no guest list is considered complete without her. Offering consistent support to the Queen and Philip as they've grown older, we can expect to see a lot more of her in the future.